Monday, January 19, 2015

Lessons From the Media Coverage of Ebola

The fact that the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia is fading is the best news I've heard so far today. With fewer people suffering and dying, I'd suggest that this might be a good time for some reflection. This situation provides us with a pretty clear-eyed take on how our media fails so often precisely because a disease outbreak doesn't come with a ready-made villain.

Our reflection could start by noticing the different level of coverage about the problem being solved than there was while it was escalating. Even the article I linked to above says very little about what worked and is more focused on how the US-built treatment centers were too little too late.

But even worse than that, we all remember how in the month of October last year the media talked about almost nothing but the Ebola outbreak and ISIS. And that coverage only added fuel to the fire.
A new poll last week revealed disturbing trends about the increasingly dire media coverage of the Ebola story in the United States. Measuring the rising anxiety among news consumers, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of New Jersey residents found that 69 percent are at least somewhat concerned about the deadly disease spreading in the U.S.

The truly strange finding was that people who said they were following the story most closely were the ones with the most inaccurate information about Ebola. The more information they consumed about the dangerous disease, the less they knew about it. How is that even possible?

Poll director David Redlawsk cast an eye of blame on the news media. "The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding," Redlawsk told a reporter. "You just have to turn on the TV to see the hysteria of the "talking heads" media. It's really wall to wall. The crawls at the bottom of the screen are really about fear. And in all the fear and all the talking, there's not a lot of information."
All that fear immediately subsided the moment the media quit reporting on the story. And there has been almost no coverage of how our public health system worked to stop the spread of Ebola in this country.

In the end, what we got was about a month and a half of panic-enducing hysteria and then nothing. Please let me know if you've seen anyone in the media apologize for that miserable failure.

But it's not just Ebola. Micah Zenko suggest that this is how the media covers all foreign affairs.
Although a dwindling number of Americans truly care about what happens elsewhere in the world, those who still do might believe, as former government officials have described it, that "the world is aflame," "there are fires burning everywhere," "many places around the world that we have interests … are perilous," "the trend towards a more chaotic world is not going to change anytime soon," or "to put it mildly, the world is a mess."...

The extent to which these terrifying and uncontested characterizations reflect "fact" is increasingly irrelevant. Once it emerges as conventional wisdom among government officials and foreign-policy commentators, given the political utility in using such language, such dire warnings become accepted as "truth." The relatively sudden development of this normative hyperbolism should be concerning for anyone still interested in U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, more generally.
In discussing how good news is never reported, Zenko said this - which really nailed what we so often see happening in media stories.
Rare positive foreign-policy news stories are usually centered upon relatable experiences of one individual trying to do good amid the surrounding mayhem. These are human interest stories, such as the Christian woman and Muslim woman who come together for religious services under the same roof in Iraq in the midst of ISIS atrocities. Or the professor at an Israeli fashion university who carries on with a scheduled runway show because she feels that the students’ work deserves to be seen despite the ongoing conflict. This reinforces an unspoken narrative that the world is a fiery, chaotic mess and that only a few saintly individuals are capable of good — but never governments, organizations, or popular movements.
All of what Zenko said could be applied to domestic media coverage as well - including the bit about those human interest stories.

The result - of course - is cynicism... a persistent belief that the world is in chaos and the United States is on the wrong track.

But rather than get cynical about the cynicism, we can do as Al Giordano suggested (feel free to substitute "poutrage" with poutrage/panic):
I do believe fervently in constructing a counter-culture of noncooperation with the daily poutrage cycle, and so whatever the next big outrage that comes to surprise us today or tomorrow brings, the first task is to step back, examine what is driving this particular poutrage convention, and not say anything unless and until one has something real to add to it. That's how all truly meaningful change ever began: a few people stepping back from what everybody else was saying and thinking while they were driven by the dominant media of their eras, refusing to get swept up in it because there was something more worthwhile, outside of those limitations prescribed from above, yet to do...

1 comment:

  1. Nothing new here, remember the color coded terror alerts that vanished from public discourse as soon as the 2004 election was over. The hyperventilating Ebola coverage played out the exact same way. It was the story that the corporate press wanted to cover, they spun it in a way that would push the election in the direction they wanted it to go. Once the election was done the story was gone from press coverage. The epidemic continued in West Africa but you wouldn't know it from any of the American cable channels, radio or most news papers.